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American Odyssey

They fled terror in Laos after secretly aiding American forces in the Vietnam War. Now 200,000 Hmong prosper-and struggle-in the United States

Late one night this past April in a suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, a window in Cha Vang’s split-level house shattered and a container filled with fire accelerant landed inside. Vang, his wife and three daughters, ages 12, 10 and 3, escaped the blaze, but the $400,000 house was destroyed. “If you want to terrorize a person or send a message, you slash a tire,” Vang, a 39-year-old prominent Hmong-American businessman and political figure, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “To burn down a house with people sleeping in it is attempted murder.”
 

Police believe that the incident may have been connected to two previous near-fatal attacks—a shooting and another firebombing—directed at members of the local Hmong community. The St. Paul-Minneapolis metropolitan area is home to 60,000 of the nation’s roughly 200,000 Hmong (pronounced “mong”), an ethnic group from Laos who began seeking sanctuary in the United States following the Vietnam War. Vang is the son of Gen. Vang Pao, the legendary commander of the Hmong guerrillas whom the CIA recruited in the early 1960s to aid U.S. pilots shot down in Laos and bordering Vietnam and also to harry communist forces there. Today, Gen. Vang Pao, who resides near Los Angeles, is the acknowledged patriarch of his exiled countrymen. Many Hmong-Americans are convinced that agents of the communist Laotian government were behind the attack on Vang’s family.
 

The violence in St. Paul briefly cast a light, albeit a harsh one, on what otherwise may be the most extraordinary immigrant story in this immigrant nation in a long time. No group of refugees has been less prepared for modern American life than the Hmong, and yet none has succeeded more quickly in making itself at home here. In Laos, the Hmong inhabited isolated highland hamlets and lived as subsistence farmers, some also growing opium poppies as a cash crop. Though they are an ancient people tracing their ancestry to China, where they endured more than 4,000 years as an oppressed minority before fleeing to Laos 200 years ago, the Hmong, at least as far as scholars know, did not have a written language until the 1950s. After the Vietnam War and their largely unheralded efforts on behalf of U.S. forces, the Hmong were hunted by the communists; many escaped to refugee camps in Thailand before being granted sanctuary in the United States.
 

“When they arrived here, the Hmong were the least westernized, most unprepared for life in the United States of all the Southeast Asian refugee groups,” said Toyo Biddle, formerly of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement, who during the 1980s was the primary official overseeing that transition. “What they’ve achieved since then is really remarkable.”
 

Thousands of Hmong-Americans have earned college degrees. In their homeland there existed only a handful of Hmong professionals, primarily fighter pilots and military officers; today, the American Hmong community boasts scores of physicians, lawyers and university professors. Newly literate, Hmong writers are producing a growing body of literature; a compilation of their stories and poems about life in America, Bamboo Among the Oaks, was published in 2002. Hmong-Americans own shopping malls and recording studios; ginseng farms in Wisconsin; chicken farms across the South; and more than 100 restaurants in the state of Michigan alone. In Minnesota, more than half of the state’s 10,000 or so Hmong families own their homes. Not bad for an ethnic group that former Wyoming Republican senator Alan Simpson characterized in 1987 as virtually incapable of integrating into American culture, or as he put it, “the most indigestible group in society.”
 

To be sure, accounts of Hmong life in the United States have tended to focus on their troubles. Shortly after arriving in California, the Upper Midwest and the Southeast, they became known for a high rate of dependence on welfare, for violent gangs and drive-by shootings, and for a despair that too often led to suicide or murder. The Hmong community’s problems remain quite real, as shown by the burned wreckage of Vang’s house in St. Paul and the poverty endured by many, but the difficulties have a way of obscuring the more important story of this displaced people’s embrace of American ideals. “Hmong culture is very democratic,” says Kou Yang, a 49-yearold Hmong born in Laos who is now an associate professor of Asian-American studies at CaliforniaStateUniversity at Stanislaus. Except perhaps in ancient times, he says, the Hmong “never had kings or queens or nobles. The customs, ceremonies, even the language generally put people on the same level. It’s a very good fit with America and democracy.”
 

The best evidence for that notion could be seen one afternoon this past winter in an unlikely place: the gaudy expanse of the artificial grass in Minneapolis’ Metrodome.
 

It was December 27, the eve of the Hmong New Year, and the home of baseball’s Twins and football’s Vikings was given over to a Hmong celebration attended by some 12,000 people. Hmong women and men, girls and boys, stood in long lines on the field, tossing balls back and forth in a reprise of an ancient courtship ritual. Others played toulou, an elaborate team sport requiring skill at spinning large wooden tops. On the sidelines, wizened elders sold medicinal herbs and finely stitched wall hangings, many depicting scenes from Hmong folklore and history.
 

The highlight of the program was a speech by Minnesota state senator Mee Moua—the first Southeast Asian refugee to be elected to a state legislature in the United States. Moua, 35, was garbed in traditional Hmong dress: an ornately embroidered skirt, black blouse and tightly wound black turban. Around her waist she wore a silver chain strung with dozens of antique French coins. Their musical jangle announced her arrival in the end zone as she approached a microphone placed on a wooden stage, its backdrop depicting a Hmong village in Laos.

“We Hmong are a proud people,” Moua began. “We have great hopes and awesome dreams, but historically, we have never had the opportunity to truly live out those hopes and dreams.” She went on, “We have been chasing those hopes and dreams through many valleys and mountains, through war, death and starvation, crossing countless borders. . . . And here we are today . . . living in the greatest country on earth, the United States of America. In just 28 years . . . we have made more progress than in the 200 years that we have endured life in southern China and Southeast Asia.” The crowd erupted in applause.
 

Moua’s own story embodies that ascendancy. Born in a mountain village in Laos in 1969, she and her family spent three years in a Thai refugee camp before they resettled in Providence, Rhode Island, and from there moved to Appleton, Wisconsin, where her father eventually found work in a television-components factory. After the plant closed, he worked at odd jobs, including a mundane occupation shared by many unskilled, illiterate Hmong newly arrived in the Midwest. The job was described in a 1980 song written by a 15-year-old Hmong refugee, Xab Pheej Kim, then living across the border in Canada:
 

I’m picking up nightcrawlers

In the middle of the night.

I’m picking up nightcrawlers

The world’s so cool, so quiet.

For the others, it’s the time to sleep sound.

So why is it my time to be up earning my living?

For the others, it’s time to sleep on the bed.

So why is it my time to pick up nightcrawlers?
 

Kim’s verses (written in Hmong and now at the Hmong Nationality Archives in St. Paul) document the once-commonplace job of plucking up earthworms, which were sold as bait to fishermen. Moua’s family harvested worms in Wisconsin when she was a girl. “It was hard and pretty yucky,” she recalls, “but we were always looking for ways to make a little cash.”
 

Moua’s persistence and capacity for hard work would carry her a long way in a culture whose leaders traditionally have been neither female nor young. She graduated from BrownUniversity in 1992 and went on to earn a law degree from the University of Minnesota in 1997. By her early 30s, Moua had become a prominent Democratic Party activist and a fundraiser for the late U.S. senator Paul Wellstone. In January 2002, Moua won office in a by-election held after a state senator was elected mayor of St. Paul; she was reelected that fall by a district that is more than 80 percent non-Hmong. Today she travels the nation talking about how the United States finally gave the Hmong a fair shot at opportunity.
 

Some would say it was the least America could do.
 

As the U.S. military involvement in Vietnam deepened, CIA agents recruited Hmong villagers into a “secret army” in Laos, a force of some 30,000 at its peak that was called on to gather intelligence, rescue downed American pilots and fight communist troops in the fiercely contested borderland between Vietnam and Laos. As many as 20,000 Hmong soldiers died during the Vietnam War. Hmong civilians, who numbered about 300,000 before the war, perished by the tens of thousands. Their sacrifice was virtually unknown to most Americans until 1997, when efforts by Hmong veterans and their advocates resulted in the installation at Arlington National Cemetery of a commemorative plaque. “In memory of the Hmong and Lao combat veterans and their American advisors who served freedom’s cause in Southeast Asia,” reads the memorial, one of a handful honoring foreign soldiers in the cemetery. “Their patriotic valor and loyalty in the defense of liberty and democracy will never be forgotten.”
 

Moua’s father, Chao Tao Moua, was 16 when he was recruited in 1965 by the CIA to work as a medic. For the next ten years, he served with U.S. forces in Laos, setting up remote clinics to treat Hmong villagers and injured American airmen. Then, in 1975, several months after U.S. forces abruptly withdrew from Vietnam in April, victorious Laotian communists (the Pathet Lao) officially seized control of their country. Mee Moua’s father and other members of the CIAbacked secret Laotian army knew they were marked men. “One night, some villagers told my father that the Pathet Lao were coming and were looking for whomever worked with the Americans,” she says. “He knew he was on their list.” Chao Tao Moua, his wife, Vang Thao Moua, 5-year-old daughter Mee and infant Mang, later named Mike, fled in the middle of the night from their village in the Xieng Khouang Province. They were among the fortunate who managed to cross the Mekong River into Thailand. Thousands of Hmong died at the hands of the Pathet Lao in the aftermath of the war. “In 1975, the current communist government came to power,” says Jane Hamilton-Merritt, author of Tragic Mountains, a history of the Vietnam-era conflict in Laos. “It announced publicly that it intended to ‘wipe out’ the Hmong who had allied themselves with the Royal Lao Government and the United States and therefore opposed the communist Pathet Lao soldiers and the North Vietnamese military forces operating in Laos. . . . Wiping out the targeted Hmong began in earnest in early 1976 and continues in 2004.”
 

The Hmong in Laos may be considered the last victims of the Vietnam War. Today, as many as 17,000 of them who fled into the jungle 30 years ago are said to remain in hiding, fearing for their lives and conducting sporadic guerrilla incursions against the still-communist Laotian government. Reports suggest that hundreds of Hmong have recently begun to emerge from the jungle, lured by the prospect of amnesty. Douglas Hartwick, U.S. ambassador to Laos, says that his goal has been to “reconcile Hmong insurgents and the Lao government.” However, many of those who have left their mountain redoubts have reportedly met with retaliation instead, perhaps facing imprisonment or execution. The Laotian government denies this. Hartwick says only: “We have been unable to substantiate these reports or repudiate them.”
 

Additionally, perhaps 30,000 Hmong remain in limbo across the border in Thailand, consigned over the decades to refugee camps. Some of them, unwilling to abandon relatives remaining in Laos, refused to depart for the United States in the 1970s. In December 2003, the United States agreed to accept up to 15,000 Hmong from a rural Thailand camp for resettlement. They began arriving in July.
 

Although there are Hmong-Americans who do return regularly to Laos, relations between the Hmong-American community and Laos are strained. As it happens, Vang’s house in St. Paul was torched five months after his father had called for normal trade relations with the Laotian government and its president, Khamtai Siphandon, and negotiating an end to the 30-year-long jungle warfare. The U.S. State Department currently advocates normal trade relations with Laos. In September 2003, the two countries took an important step when they signed a trade agreement. It is awaiting Congressional approval.
 

The hmong diaspora of the 1970s evolved against the dark backdrop of trauma and terror that unfolded during the 1960s in their homeland. When that first wave of Hmong refugees reached the United States, their poverty was often compounded by the Hmong tradition of large families. The U.S. resettlement policy also created hardships. It required that refugees be dispersed throughout the nation, to prevent any one municipality from being overburdened. But the effect was to break apart families and fragment the 18 or so traditional clans that form the social backbone of the Hmong community. Not only do clans provide each individual with a family name—Moua, Vang, Thao, Yang, for example—they also provide support and guidance, especially in times of need.
 

Large Hmong populations settled in California and the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, where social services were well funded and jobs were said to exist. Today, Minnesota’s Twin Cities are called the “Hmong capital of the United States.” In one of the latest waves of migration, more and more Hmong have settled in a part of the nation that they say reminds them of home: North Carolina.
 

This past january in Hickory, North Carolina, Mee Moua and her husband, Yee Chang, a journalist turned real estate agent, sat at a makeshift banquet table in the living room of an officer of the United Hmong Association of North Carolina. They were eating an American Hmong fusion breakfast of doughnuts and spicy soup, and were joined by more than a dozen Hmong residents of the Hickory-Morganton area in the foothills of the Piedmont plateau. This area, many Hmong say, reminds them of the highlands of Laos.
 

On this morning, they were seeking advice from Moua on a number of problems. For instance, there were only two or three fluent bilingual Hmong speakers in the area capable of serving as interpreters in courtrooms and the like. The interpreters had been donating their services, but the work was interfering with their other jobs. “What you have to do is make a translation business and then sign contracts with the hospitals and courts,” Moua suggested. Perhaps a member of the Minnesota Supreme Court, she said, could contact a judge on the North Carolina Supreme Court to discuss adopting such a program already in place in Minnesota. The North Carolina Hmong readily agreed to follow up on her suggestions.
 

Most of the estimated 15,000 Hmong in North Carolina work in furniture factories and mills, but many have turned to chickens. One of the first poultry farmers in the Morganton area was Toua Lo, a former school principal in Laos. Lo owns 53 acres, four chicken houses and thousands of breeding hens. “Hmong people call me all the time for advice on how to start a chicken farm, and maybe 20 come down to my farm every year,” he says.
 

Later that day, in front of about 500 Hmong and local and state officials at a Morganton high-school cafeteria, Moua recalled the time local toughs showed up at her house in Appleton, Wisconsin, when she was about 12 years old. They pelted the house with eggs. She wanted to confront the group, some of whom she suspected had been among those who had earlier defaced the house with racial epithets, but her parents intervened. “ Go out there now, and maybe you will get killed, and we won’t have a daughter,” she remembers her father saying. Her mother added, “Stay inside, work hard and make something with your life: maybe someday that boy will work for you and give you respect.” Moua paused. “When I go to places around the country now,” she concluded, “I’m very happy to tell you that I get respect.”
 

Ger yang, 43, represents the other face of the Hmong exile in America. He lives in a three-room apartment with 11 family members in Stockton, California. Neither Yang nor his wife, Mee Cheng, 38, speaks English; neither has worked since their arrival in 1990; they subsist on welfare. Their eight children, ranging in age from 3 to 21, attend school or work only sporadically, and their 17-year-old daughter is pregnant. The family holds to a traditional belief that the newborn and its parents must leave the family home for 30 days out of respect for ancestral spirits, but the daughter and her boyfriend have no place to go. (In Laos, expectant couples simply construct a small hut next to the house.) If “the baby and new parents don’t leave the house,” Yang says, “the ancestors will be offended and the entire family will die.”
 

Like Yang, many Hmong-Americans in Stockton are jobless and receive government assistance. Some youths drop out of school in their early teens, and violence is often a problem. This past August, youths gunned down Tong Lo, a 48-year-old Hmong grocery store owner, in front of his market. (He left behind a 36-year-old wife, Xiong Mee Vue Lo, and seven children.) Police suspect that Hmong gang members committed the murder, although they have yet to determine a motive or apprehend the gunmen. “I’ve seen hostilities start with just a look,” says Tracy Barries of Stockton’s Operation Peacekeepers, an outreach program, “and it will escalate from there.”
 

Pheng Lo, director of Stockton’s Lao Family Community, a nonprofit social service agency, says parents are vying with gangs for the hearts and minds of many Hmong youths. “You either win them over or you lose,” he says. “Many parents don’t know English and can’t work, and the children start to take the power in the family. Soon, the parents can’t control their own children.” In Laos, Lo said, parents had strict control over their children, and they must assert it here too.
 

The Hmong have always been adaptable, taking in the cultures around them, but they hold tight to many customs. After the Hmong grocery store owner was gunned down, his widow, Mee Vue Lo, considered leaving Stockton. But her husband’s clan, the Los, following the Hmong tradition, sought another clan member to be her husband and provide for the children. Vue Lo, who had been in the United States for 25 years, spoke good English and considered herself American, resisted the idea. Still, the clan leader, Pheng Lo, approached Tom Lor, 40, a recently divorced benefits officer at the county welfare office. Lor also wanted nothing to do with old Hmong marrying customs.
 

And that’s where things might have stood if Lor hadn’t learned that Vue Lo’s 3-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was in the hospital with a pulmonary infection and few would visit her; she’d witnessed the shooting, and people were afraid that members of the gang that allegedly killed her father might show up. When Lor visited Elizabeth, she smiled and curled up in his lap. “I couldn’t get the girl out of my mind,” he recalls. “I was suffering myself from my divorce, and was away from my son.” When Lor returned to the hospital a couple of days later, the girl’s mother was there.
 

The two agreed that the clan’s marriage idea was silly, but they talked, and one thing led to another. Lor moved into Vue Lo’s house, along with the seven children, and they were married in a Hmong ceremony. The marriage took place just a few weeks after Lo’s death, a perhaps shockingly short time by American standards. But in traditional Hmong culture, the new husband-to-be is usually chosen and present at the funeral of a man leaving behind a wife and children.
 

on a rainy night this past March, Mee Moua greeted a delegation of government and business leaders from Taiwan at Cedarhurst, a 26-room mansion on ten acres southeast of St. Paul. Built in 1863, the Classical Revival landmark originally belonged to Cordenio Severance, a lawyer and friend of Frank B. Kellogg, a U.S. senator and the secretary of state under Calvin Coolidge. It is now owned by two of Moua’s uncles, Xoua Thao, 41, a physician, and True Thao, 39, the first licensed Hmong social worker in Minnesota. The brothers, who were destitute, came to the United States in 1976 from a family that knew only farming and fighting in Laos. In 2001, they bought the $1 million mansion, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
 

After a banquet of steak, shrimp and baby bok choy, the guests gathered near a wall that holds a gallery of prosperous-looking men associated with the mansion going back to its robber baron days. In the position of greatest honor, though, is a large color photograph of an elderly Hmong man and woman, Moua’s maternal grandparents, who had been orphaned in Laos. Her grandfather died in the States in 2000; her grandmother still lives at Cedarhurst. Xoua Thao surveys the wall with pride. “My father didn’t live to see this place,” he says softly, “but I’m sure his spirit is here and is very pleased tonight.”


 

TO THE RESCUE
 

In a mountaintop guardpost near the village of Ban Va in central Laos, Hmong soldiers watched the American pilot eject from his burning plane. It was December 1964, early in the Vietnam War, and the pilot was on a bombing run. The Hmong, part of a secret army backed by the CIA, hoped to reach him before North Vietnamese troops in the area did.

 

The leader of this cadre of ragtag Hmong soldiers, Nou Yee Yang, recalls that he and his men walked for hours before reaching a field where they spotted a parachute. They found the pilot hiding in some bushes. “He was sweating and very scared because he didn’t know who we were,” Yang says.

 

Phoumi, the Hmong soldiers said to the pilot, referring to a Laotian leader supported by the United States. The Hmong, who spoke no English, hoped the pilot would recognize the name and understand they were on the American side.

 

Yang says the airman was still uncertain whether the Hmong soldiers were friend or foe as they led him to another hilltop village. Their American-donated radios weren’t working, so they put the pilot’s helmet on a long stick and waved it to signal U.S. search planes. A U.S. helicopter arrived the next morning. The pilot “was smiling so much and waving his arms goodbye when he left,” Yang recalls, adding that the American presented his rescuers with his pistol as a token of gratitude.

 

Bill Lair, a CIA official based in Laos at the time, who directed the agency’s operations there, says Hmong soldiers risked their own lives to lead many U.S. pilots to safety. The total number of American airmen rescued by the Hmong was, according to agency spokesman Mark Mansfield, never tallied by the CIA.

 

Yang, now 65, fled Laos after the communist takeover in 1975 and has lived in Milwaukee since 1979. He still speaks no English and has found little work in the United States other than odd jobs. Nonetheless, he says, he feels connected to this country, in part because of that pilot he rescued four decades ago. Yang never did learn the man’s name. “I wish that someday I could meet him again,” he says through an interpreter.

 

Another Hmong veteran in Milwaukee, Xay Dang Xiong, 61, says he commanded Hmong forces protecting a secret American radar installation on a Laotian mountaintop. Like Yang, Xiong fled Laos in 1975. Today, he works with Lao Family Community, a Hmong social service agency in Milwaukee “When we fought alongside the Americans in Laos, it was called the secret war,” he says. “Hmong people did so many dangerous things to help, but people here still don’t know that. It’s still like a secret.”

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